Sunday, June 16, 2024

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
The Power of a Parable
Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Ezekiel 17:22-24, NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (Mark 4:26-34, NRSVUE)

Over the past month or so we’ve been working on a little project at home, which has been… fun. Because water is, as we all know, an increasingly scarce resource in this part of the country, we decided to rip out the grass lawn in our small backyard (which was, to be fair, more weeds than grass) and replace it with more environmentally responsible plants.

Now, if you want to get to know your yard better, a really great way to do that is to crawl around on your knees over every square inch of it for weeks on end pulling up individual blades of grass (and bunches of other stuff that I don’t even recognize) by hand. This experience has not only made me long for apartment life in New York City, but also helped me appreciate the parables that Jesus shares in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel in ways I hadn’t before.

One of the suggestions we researched as a viable landscaping alternative to grass is a plant known to botanists as trifolium repens but I’m no botanist so I’ll just call it by it’s common name, which is white clover. It grows in mats, with its stems spreading up to 7 inches per year, and doesn’t require either great soil or much water, which makes it a great choice for my purposes; and it’s tiny flowers attract bumblebees and honeybees, which is pretty cool too. So, when a significant section of our backyard was stripped down to bare dirt, I headed off to the nursery to fetch me some clover.

I figured I’d just pick up a few trays of plants, go home and put them in the ground in order to move this whole endeavor along. But, as it turns out, clover plants are relatively expensive, and clover seed is relatively cheap, so one of the nursery folks suggested that I simply grab a bag of seed, throw it on the ground, water it a bit, and wait for the magic to happen.

In theory, this shouldn’t have been too difficult or taken too long — even in this climate. Clover is one of the most important forage plants in the world because it’s drought resistant, grows quickly and can thrive pretty much anywhere. Farmers mix it in among grasses in their pastures because it actually improves soil quality and outcompetes weeds, which is awesome too.

But I’m not trying to grow clover in theory, I’m trying to grow clover in my backyard – and the results thus far haven’t exactly been what I’d hoped for. It’s not coming in very quickly or consistently in places where I sowed the seeds, but it is appearing in places where I didn’t plant it (and frankly don’t want it). And this is not only kind of a bummer, but also a bit ironic.

You see, while farmers love clover, homeowners often hate it because it spreads quickly and chokes out the grass in their lawns; what I’m saying is that in your typical residential setting (like mine), clover is seen a weed — and weeds are generally plants that we can’t stop from growing, hence the irony. 

My next door neighbor has clover all over his yard and doesn’t want it there, yet I, a mere 50 feet away, in the same climate, with the same dirt, haven’t been able to get it to grow where I actually want it to. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, I suppose; and a weed, at the end of the day, is just a plant that has the audacity to be where someone doesn’t want it to be. Why is this happening in my yard? I have no idea — like I said earlier, I’m no botanist. But I am a minister, so I’ve spent some time considering the theological implications of my recent landscaping dilemma.

In his quest to describe complicated things to his disciples, Jesus often turns to parables, which, in a nutshell, are stories that try to say something about one thing by comparing it to another thing. And this time we get two parables for the price of one as Jesus tries, once again, to explain what the kingdom of God is all about.

In the first, a farmer scatters seed on the ground and it grows, though he knows not how; the seed eventually produces grain, which the farmer then harvests. And, for Jesus, this is what the kingdom of God is like. In the second, a tiny mustard seed end up upon the group and grows up to be a gigantic shrub (mustard, it just so happens, was seen as an invasive weed). This mustard tree becomes a home for the birds of the air, which is nice. And, for Jesus, this is what the kingdom of God is like too. It all makes perfect sense, right?

Parables are fascinating because, while they kind of make sense, they never make perfect sense. There’s always uncertainty and ambiguity, which allows imagination and mystery to find their way in; parables invite us into their world to see what we might make of them; they give us the chance to breathe new life to them as we interpret them anew. Interestingly, the second part of the Greek root for parable, ballo, means to throw; you know, like a ball — or like a seed that’s thrown upon the ground in the hope that it will grow into something new, something different (wow, I really do have plants on the brain).

Anyway, in the first part of today’s reading, the role of God and the role of humans in bringing about God’s reign are laid side by side. The farmer does their thing (sowing seeds, presumably caring for them, waiting for the mystery of growth to happen, and harvesting their grain when it’s time), and God does God’s thing (you know, the whole mystery part).

Jesus seems to be saying that both are necessary to bring about God’s reign: God needs us to act — to do something, to be a part of what God is doing (I have no idea why). But our work alone is not enough to make it happen, God is always working too. And this is humbling and liberating at the same time — we can’t do it on our own and we don’t have to do it on our own.

In the second part of today’s reading, Jesus, frankly, seems to be winging it a little. Having just told the story of the seed and the farmer, he muses about what to say next, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” And what he comes up with, on the fly, is this story about a tiny mustard seed, sown upon the ground (though we know neither by whom nor why — as I said, mustard was seen as an undesirable weed). And eventually it grows into a large shrub and becomes a bird sanctuary.

Unlike the first parable, there’s not much in the way of human involvement here; this one leans pretty heavily on the mystery — on God’s creative impulse, on God’s ability to make something out of nothing, on God’s tendency to see virtue and value in places that we don’t.

In the Hebrew Bible, prophets like Ezekiel and Daniel compare the impending arrival and reign of the Messiah to a tall and noble cedar tree growing atop high and lofty mountain. In Mark’s Gospel, though, God sends us a Messiah who is a scrubby weed growing in the desert dust — a weed that becomes a place of refuge for the least of these, a weed that will defy all expectations and change the world forever. Okay, I think I get it; you don’t have to hit me over the head.

But Jesus’s parables are more complicated than that. The first part of the world parable — para — actually means “alongside.” If you combine this with what I previously said about the second part of the word, parable literally means “throw alongside,” and this is exactly what these stories manage to do; they insinuate themselves alongside the circumstances of our lives, inviting us to read them in new ways.

While I clearly have plants on the brain lately, I also have church on the brain; I’m a minister so I always have church on the brain (it’s kind of an occupational hazard). So as I was read these parables for the umpteenth time, my reading of them was inevitably influenced by these things, and here’s a taste of where this wild ride took me this week.

We are in the midst of a period of monumental change in and for the church. Confronted with our dwindling influence in an increasingly secular world, troubled by uncertainty and fear about what the future holds for us, we react in a way that humans often do: We try to function our way out of the situation — we feverishly run about trying to do a million different things in order to change the outcome.

And that’s all well and good, I suppose; our work here is important. But the reality is this:

Some of the things we do will succeed, and some won’t.

Some of the seeds we sow will grow, and some won’t.

Some of the seeds we sow will grow because of us, and some will do so in spite of us, and some will do so despite us.

Some of the seeds we sow won’t grow at all, even when we tend to them with our best efforts and intentions.

Some of the seeds we sow will end up growing in ways or in places we didn’t necessarily foresee or, sometimes, even want.

And some seeds that we didn’t actually believe were worth our time and effort will end up yielding wonderful things.

Yet, we continue to delude ourselves into thinking that we are unilaterally in charge of what happens here. If we build the right program, if we get involved in the right project, if we do the right thing, then the church will grow. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But the operative word in all of these statements is “we;” in other words, it’s all about us.

And so maybe the questions we should be asking ourselves — in light of what Jesus tells us God’s reign is all about, in light of the idea that God’s work is always a partnership between God and us — are ones like these:

Where is God in all the things we do?

What does God want for this community?

What’s is God calling us to in this place and time.”

How can we contribute to what God desires for the creation?

Be honest: Do we really spend much time thinking about these things?